Killing a language: China won’t let Tibetans study in their own language

China’s continuing war against the Tibetan people and their culture rarely involves the direct use of military force any longer. But it is a war.

China, for years since taking over the isolated mountainous nation in the 1950s, has sought to remake Tibet — remake Tibet in a Chinese image.

Tibet is called an autonomous region by the Chinese government. Yet its people and government have no autonomy. Besides suppression of the Buddhist religion, a special target of the Chinese attempt to force assimilation of Tibetans has been their language.

Now, China is forbidding the use of the Tibetan language in elementary schools for instruction. The organization Human Rights Watch said the actions are in violation of China’s own constitution, which protects the rights of minority languages. Human Rights Watch is a nongovernmental worldwide organization that researches and advocates for human rights. Its findings are backed by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

In a breathtaking example of doublespeak, China has instituted compulsory bilingual prekindergartens and kindergartens. Helping kids become bilingual sounds like a great idea. There’s a catch to the classes, though, which start at age 3. Tibetan children are immersed exclusively in Chinese. All instruction is in Chinese.

What’s more, the Chinese government is flooding Tibetan schools with teachers from other areas of the country who do not speak Tibetan, making it more difficult for students to speak in their home language at school. Children will become used to talking to their schoolmates in Chinese, not Tibetan — a slow erosion of the language is certain.

And if a Tibetan dares to advocate for the language, prison time might follow. In 2018, a Tibetan was sentenced to five years for inciting separatism.

It’s hard to maintain linguistic continuity in a family with this kind of pressure. Remember, the situation is very different than a person emigrating to China, or the United States, who might lose their language over time as they become part of the larger culture.

Tibetans are prisoners in their own land, and the Chinese have made it very clear that they seek to destroy the Tibetan culture. This is simply the latest assault in China’s ongoing torture of Tibet.

The history of this abuse is a history of one of the worst, and least noticed, human-rights violations in human history.


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